March is the month of goodbyes. First of all the air unit left with all four Twin Otters and the Dash 7. Then RRS Ernest Shackleton arrived to take away all those not staying for the next 7 months. The planes will not return until October and we will not get another ship until December, so the departure of the ship really is the beginning of winter. Once it leaves there is no going back for those of us left on the wharf.
The beginning of the month was dedicated to gearing up for 'last-call' - the last visit from a ship and the end of the summer season. Last-call is the last chance to get cargo out to the UK, so a lot of packing has been going on. In the met department we've been packing up data records ready to send back. The GA's have been scouting around for old field equipment to send back for museum displays and demonstrations. All our waste is being packed up in drums and containers and specifically labeled with different colour paint, ready to be shipped out and disposed of elsewhere. Everything on base has to be counted, a huge stock check of everything from food to spare parts to field kit. This information is sent on to HQ in Cambridge who use it to order all the supplies that we will need for next season. Everybody has their own list of things to count and it can get a bit tedious especially when you are faced with a box full of bolts to count, or a shelf of tinned carrots! All those leaving are packing personal effects in big crates - huge crates in the case of people who have been here two years - and all those that are staying are making the most of the last chance to send home post and presents. We will not be able to send anything else home until the planes return in October.
On the 17th the ship was spotted by some people walking around the point. I walked up to a vantage point overlooking the wharf and watched the little red dot get bigger as RSS Ernest Shackleton made her way towards us. It was quite late on in the evening and the bay was unusually calm. People were either taking photos or waiting on the wharf to help tie up the ship as it came alongside. I was standing with friends who were leaving and tried to imagined how I'd feel if it was my turn - the 'big red taxi' arriving to take me home. I found myself feeling relieved that it wasn't quite my turn yet, that I still had some time left. I'm sure that this time next year I will be only too pleased to see it arrive to take me home!
The next week was full of activity. During the day those on relief were split into two shifts so that the huge job of unloading the ship and then reloading it again could continue throughout the day. Hundreds of drums of fuel were lifted from the ship, 5 at a time, onto a trailer and piled up on North beach, followed by containers of food. It took three days to unload everything and another two days to reload it with all the containers full of cargo bound for the Falklands or the UK.
Above: (L-R) RRS Ernest Shackleton moored at Rothera wharf, drums of fuel being unloaded from the ship and it all proves too exciting for some people! Click on the images to enlarge them.
As well as full days on the wharf there was also a hectic party schedule to cope with in the evenings, making the most of the last week. There was an 80's night in the Ops tower and a peaceful drinks party which was suddenly turned into a battle field when the coalminers and rainbow warriors turned up, hotly pursued by the base riot police Matt Danby and Gary Middleton. See below!
Later in the week we were all invited onboard the Shackleton for the evening. Everyone sat down to a superb meal. You could tell who the winterers were because we were the ones madly piling up the salad and fruit, all too aware that it will be a long time before 'freshies' are so freely available again. The next day everyone who was leaving moved onto the ship for the last night. It was a strange evening. Everyone was a bit subdued - still suffering from the effects of the night before and maybe a bit sad that the season had finally come to an end. It is a tradition that on the last night the departing summerers cause havoc for those left behind. Throughout the night there were small huddles of guilty looking people, whispered conversations, surreptitious signals, and several people suddenly disappearing for lengthy amounts of time. The next day we found out why. Gators suddenly had no wheels, doors went missing, computer keyboards were packed in expanding foam and a skidoo engine appeared in the computer room. I thought I had escaped most of the pranks until, standing on the wharf as the ship pulled away, my friends standing on board took off their jackets. They had my favourite t-shirts on!
This is the second time I have stood on the wharf watching the ship leave but second time around it was definitely a different experience. Last year I was looking forward to my first Antarctic winter and nothing would have persuaded me to get on that ship. This year, as the gangway was lifted, I was still looking forward to the winter but for the moment I was more preoccupied by the fact that all the fantastic friends that I had spent the last year living and working with were soon to be floating away. As the ship left, I felt very definitely left behind.
Above: RRS Ernest Shackleton departs and the winterers say goodbye to their friends Click on the images for a larger version.
All this was a new experience for Stewart Hill who is going into his first winter but he also admits to feeling a bit 'funny'.
"The Ernest Shackleton arrived on the 17th of March. It looked quite majestic as it slowly made it's way towards the wharf where I stood, lit up whilst all around us was near total darkness. I had been feeling rather uncomfortable for some time about the ship arriving. For the majority of people on base it was the final few days of the season. Some would be sailing up to the Falkland Islands and a few others all the way back to the UK. They all had their flights, dates and times sorted out for the journey home and it had been the main topic of conversation for a good fortnight before the ship actually arrived. For some it had been even longer. The only reason I can give for my peculiar feelings was that I should have been on the Shackleton. Not in the sense that I don't want to be here, but you see, originally I was only going to be here for the summer season. Circumstances changed and I was asked if I would like to stay. After much soul searching and conversations with my parents and the girl I love, I decided to stay. That was in late January but I couldn't help but think that if I sailed with everybody else I would be back home within two weeks. Back with my family, friends and beautiful girlfriend Samantha.
The relief operation came to an end and it was time for the Shackleton to leave with its part cargo of jolly jack tars. I almost missed the big event due to my having to attend to the aftermath of some of the previous nights pranks, devilishly carried out by the mischievous departing gremlins. Hence I was shattered. Later I thought that perhaps it would have been better to sleep in, waking up to find the ship gone and leaving every body else and myself to get on with things. That would have meant though that I would miss out on saying Bon Voyage to the people I've spent the last four months with and the friends I've made in that time. That and taunting them about the incredible Mal de Mere they were definitely going to encounter!
So, the ship set sail and we all waved farewell. Any last minute thoughts of jumping aboard had now gone, although I felt sorely tempted to when faced with the opportunity. This brought about a sudden sense of relief in me. My strange feelings had dissipated. Now I would be the one leaving in a while and in between that I had all the fun of an Antarctic winter to contend with. Now there's a prospect to relish!"
I wasn't the only one standing on the wharf who had done all this before. Both Rayner Piper and Phil Horne are also going into their second winter.
"Summer flew by and it wasn't long before I found myself standing at the wharf waving off the big red floating B.A.S bus. After big hugs and kisses the summerers shuffled onboard the Shackleton and the gangplank was raised. Their faces looking back at us from the ship far more concerned about what the winter held in store for us than the 20 huddled figures watching them sail away. Most of them don't know what fun it is to winter here. Last year I am sure my face reflected their concern, but going into my second winter was much easier. Sad to wave the friends off who I had shared last winter with. At first it seems quite strange without them. No Keith and his dodgey Dolly Parton blaring from the kitchen, no Jenny Dr and Podgey Powell skiing/falling down the ramp or the usual suspects in the bar (you know who you are!) I thought they were all an integral part of the Rothera landscape. Not so but new characters soon filled their places. Unfortunately the new Chef, Sloppy has just as bad a taste in music as Beefy. Still I haven't seen anyone who ski's as badly as Mike though!"
"The ship leaving marks the end of the summer and the beginning of another winter. Though this will be my second winter, I've never completed a full summer. This year I spent a couple of months back in the UK buying new dive kit to replace that facility lost to the fire. So for me the ship leaving was not such a big deal. I'd already said goodbye to a lot of the people before when I flew out in November. Still, standing on the wharf in a cloud of red smoke, watching the crowds on the ship, and the relatively few people left on the wharf sets the tone for the forthcoming winter."
Above: the Ernest Shackleton is given a send off by the winterers left on the wharf - Click on the images for a larger version.
Finally, there was one complete weirdo among us. For Pete Martin this will not be his first or second winter but his third. It was only last year that he was on his way home, waving the wharf goodbye.
"Strange days indeed....there I was again standing on the wrong side of the wharf, watching the Ernest Shackleton sail away back to.....well I don' t know, civilization I guess or at least more civilization, definitely more choice anyway.
I've seen the "last chance ceremony" four times now but only once from the ship and a fine sight that was too. It is that walk back up to the base when you have a little time to have a think, foremost is what sort of nasty little surprises has the summer crowd, you have just spent four months getting to know, left you to deal with. Second has to be alcohol, did I order enough, no of course not. We can only get a certain amount but did I call in all the favours I could.
Third winter out of the last four for me....do I have a problem? Some sort of social dysfunction maybe?....or perhaps it's everyone else. Saying that, winter is an awesome time to be here. The first few days getting the score on the complete change of feeling on base, the lack of people, checking out the faces that I will spend the next seven months with, that's what I do anyway. I'm in a good position this year, I know the base, I know the "BAS systems" don't quite understand them all but there you go. Not quite up with all the personalities yet, guarantee I will be in seven months though! Not least of course is the outdoor stuff, the snowboarding's free!! Ok there's no trees or ski lifts but if there was then everyone would be here....wouldn't they?
Winter goes pretty quick, got to get out and do it, the taxes, bills, speed cameras are all just around the corner and we will never get the chance again....well, never say never eh!"
By Felicity Aston